IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound’s 1913 imagist masterpiece, In a Station of the Metro, showcases perfectly the power of punctuation. When reading a text, the punctuation can all too often act as a means to an end, as a scaffolding that holds the language together and keeps it on the right line. This is not the case with Pound’s poem. The semi-colon at the end of the first line contains the whole meaning of the poem. It is the point at which the poem turns, at which the poem communicates its meaning to us.
One day while waiting to board the Paris metro, Pound was struck by the sudden beauty and magnificence of the crowd, and soon set out on a poetic odyssey to capture this moment in verse. In a Station of the Metro is the conclusion of this quest. He distilled and distilled his poetry until it was down to its bare-bones. The work we have in front of us is perhaps the purest piece of poetry you will ever find written in the English language. And its meaning is entirely within the semi-colon. The moment our brain connects the two lines, places the images besides one another, computes the grammatical instruction of the semi-colon; there is the meaning of the poem. Pound has reversed the function of language and punctuation: language acts as the scaffolding for the instant that he has tried to capture; the punctuation is the pure portrayal of the emotion of that instant. A critic once described T.S. Eliot’s punctuation as ‘sad’; if Eliot’s is sad, then Pound’s semi-colon is surely exultant.
by Daniel Davies
A different version of this non-sequitir was previously posted at the blog Slow Rolling On.